Kirk Earlywine had an inkling Milan Stanojevic might have a big night against Idaho State on Thursday, and he was right.
What Eastern Washington University’s second-year men’s basketball coach didn’t figure, however, was that Stanojevic, the Eagles’ best spot-up shooter, would end up doing most of his damage from the foul line.
Yet that’s what happened as the 6-foot-2 senior shooting guard finished 10 for 10 from the foul line and scored a season-high 20 points in leading the Eagles to an important 71-65 Big Sky Conference win over the Bengals in front of a Reese Court crowd of 1,757.
Stanojevic, who came in averaging just 9.3 points, hit a couple of early 3-pointers to bring the Bengals out of their zone defense, and then took advantage of their overzealousness by knocking down every free throw.
The win was the sixth in seven home games for the Eagles (9-7 overall, 3-1 in the Big Sky) and kept them well-positioned in the conference standings, especially with preseason favorite and defending champion Portland State losing to Weber State on Thursday.
ISU (4-12, 1-1) lost its ninth game in as many tries on the road, despite getting 13 points each from Amorrow Morgan, Chron Tatum and Donnie Carson.
“Idaho State did not play as much zone as I expected,” Earlywine said. “The times we’ve been zoned this year, we’ve been very efficient, and I felt if they played zone, we could free Milan up. He got off and made those two early, and then they got real anxious guarding him and fouled him a couple of times and put him on the foul line.”
Stanojevic wasn’t the only Eastern player to hurt the Bengals with free throws. As a team, the Eagles made 20 of 21 foul shots, including all 18 they attempted in the second half. Junior center Brandon Moore, who finished with 17 points and seven rebounds, was 5 for 5 from the foul line, and Benny Valentine, who scored 14 points coming off the bench, converted three of his four free throws.
“When you step up there and go 20 for 21, it certainly helps,” Earlywine said. “And we needed all of them.”
Eastern appeared to have the game in hand midway through the second half when ISU coach Joe O’Brien suffered a major sideline meltdown after his senior center, Lucas Steijn, had a shot rejected on the low blocks.
O’Brien, sensing a foul call had been missed, lit into an official, drawing a technical foul, and then unleashed a profanity that earned him a second technical and automatic ejection.
With Eastern leading 52-49 at that point, Stanojevic stepped to the foul line and converted all four free throws.
And when Moore was fouled going to the basket on the ensuing possession and knocked down both of his free throws, the Eagles were up 58-49 with just less than 8 minutes left in the game.
ISU answered, however, with an 11-2 run that tied it at 60 with 2:59 left.
But Eastern regrouped behind an aggressive defense and a barrage of late free throws that provided the final margin of victory.
“When we took a nine-point lead there in the second half, it was uncharacteristic of our guys to give that lead back,” Earlywine said. “But I was happy we were tough enough to recapture the lead and hold on.”
The Eagles made all seven free throws they attempted in the final 3 minutes, and Moore and Valentine each added field goals.
Along with his team’s foul shooting, Earlywine also liked its defensive intensity, which made baskets hard to come by for ISU’s top two scorers, Morgan and Matt Stucki, who played only 2 minutes in the first half after picking up two early fouls and finished with only six points.
“It helped that Stucki played only 19 minutes, but I thought we guarded those two guys really hard,” Earlywine said.
The Eagles will be back at home on Sunday when they entertain Weber State in a Big Sky game that will tip off at 1:05 p.m.
The occasion will feature the return of former standout point guard and first-round NBA draft pick Rodney Stuckey, whose jersey will be retired at halftime.
EWU 71, Idaho St. 65
Idaho St. (4-12, 1-1)—Tatum 6-9 1-2 13, Busma 5-6 0-1 10, Morgan 4-9 4-5 13, Baldwin 1-6 1-2 4, Stucki 2-4 0-0 6, P.Taylor 2-4 0-0 5, Steijn 0-3 1-2 1, Carson 5-10 2-2 13, Monroe 0-0 0-0 0, Kilpatrick 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-52 9-14 65.
Eastern Washington (9-7, 3-1)—Dunn 3-5 2-2 8, Moore 6-11 5-5 17, DeLeon 1-8 0-0 2, Gibson 2-2 0-0 6, Stanojevic 4-6 10-10 20, Busch 0-1 0-0 0, Valentine 5-12 3-4 14, Christensen 2-3 0-0 4, Genao 0-0 0-0 0, Brunell 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-49 20-21 71.
Halftime—E. Washington 27-25. 3-Point Goals—Idaho St. 6-11 (Stucki 2-3, Carson 1-1, Baldwin 1-1, P.Taylor 1-1, Morgan 1-4, Kilpatrick 0-1), E. Washington 5-13 (Gibson 2-2, Stanojevic 2-4, Valentine 1-3, DeLeon 0-4). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Idaho St. 29 (Tatum 13), E. Washington 27 (Moore 7). Assists—Idaho St. 12 (Morgan 6), E. Washington 14 (DeLeon 3). Total Fouls—Idaho St. 17, E. Washington 14. Technicals—Idaho St. Bench 2. A—1,757.
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